Retailers may have tightened their belts on returns, but they're loosening up their price-match policies this holiday season.
Nearly all big-box retailers now offer some form of price matching, whether it's equaling a competitor or offering a price guarantee when a regular-priced item goes on sale.
The policies at Target, Best Buy and other companies are evolving in favor of the consumer, said Lindsay Sakraida, features director at DealNews.com.
"Stores are either matching Amazon during the holidays or in the case of Target and Best Buy, year-round," she said.
Price-match policies aren't new. They've waxed and waned for longer than a decade, but retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart began offering them again in 2009 during the recession. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart heavily promoted its price-match policy, even saying that consumers don't need to show proof of a lower price.
Analysts say that retailers use the matches as a goodwill gesture for consumers and an attempt to appear competitive. Last year Best Buy added price matching to combat showrooming, in which shoppers check out an item in the store but then buy online.
This year, Staples and Toys R Us added Amazon.com to the list of retailers they match online. The office-supply company matched Amazon's prices on its website in the past, but this is the first year it matched Amazon's prices in its stores, too. They will also match any online competitor with a brick-and-mortar store by the same name.
Some retailers are extending the time that they will match prices after a purchase. Throughout the year, most offer a price guarantee for seven to 15 days if the item is priced less in their own store or on their website.
But retailers such as Target and Best Buy have ratcheted up the price-match period from early November until a few days before Christmas. The improved holiday policy also includes matching competitors.
For example, if a customer purchased a TV for $300 on Nov. 5 and the identical item could be found on Amazon for $250 on Dec. 15, she could get a $50 credit as long as she brings in proof of the current price and Target or Best Buy verifies it.
In theory, this means that customers can shop with confidence at a retailer offering a price-match policy because they are guaranteed the lowest price. It allows customers to be able to look beyond the price to other factors, such as product assortment, advice, convenience and service, Best Buy spokesman Jeff Shelman said.
But the reality is that only about 5 percent of consumers take advantage of it, according to Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group.
"Most people think of it as a waste of time," added Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. "It's just for inveterate bargain hunters."
Lesley Zaun of Minneapolis has never asked for a price match and has no plans to start this season. "It's not going to happen for me," she said. "It's too much trouble."
Long list of exceptions
Even some dedicated shoppers agree. Mike Rydeen of St. Peter, Minn., used to save $5 or $10 on formula and diapers using price matches when his kids were little, but no longer.
"The hassle of the parking lots and crowds isn't worth it anymore," he said.
Not just that: It's also the long list of exceptions to the rule. Target has 27 bulleted exclusions on its website for holiday price matching, including competitor coupon offers, bundled offers, contract cellphones and out-of-stock items.
Part of that may be due to overzealous frugal types trying to take advantage of retailers.
Consumerist.com, an advocacy website of Consumer Reports, had a shopper complain on its site that Toys R Us matched Wal-Mart's sale price of $37 on a $75 "Skylanders SWAP Force" video game, but it would not honor additional promotions such as an additional 10 percent off if he paid with a Toys R Us credit card and 40 percent off if he purchased a second video game. Toys R Us told the shopper that he could not combine offers.
Even if only a few hard-core savers are using price-match policies, it's possible that they will be expanded further, Dworsky said. "Retailers can look like the good guy, and it's no skin off their nose," he said.
For a comparison of big-box retailers' price match policies, check ConsumerWorld.org or Cheapism.com.